California law defines murder as the “unlawful killing of another human being or fetus with malice aforethought.” 

What exactly does that mean? Broadly speaking, if you acted in such a way that the likely result of the action was someone else’s death — and it caused someone’s death — you could be charged with murder.

Murder charges are very serious. If convicted of first-degree murder in California, you could face 25-years-to-life in state prison. A criminal conviction for second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15-years-to-life.

If you or someone you love has been accused of murder, it’s important to speak with a skilled murder defense attorney as soon as possible.

Speak with Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend about your homicide case today. Free consultation – (800)834-6434.

Understanding murder charges in California

In order to convict someone of murder, a prosecutor must prove that certain facts of the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.” According to California Penal Code 187 PC, murder has three elements:

  1. The defendant caused the death of another person (or fetus),
  2. The defendant acted with “malice aforethought,” and
  3. The defendant killed without lawful excuse or justification.

As we mentioned above, California law divides murder cases into two categories: first-degree murder and second-degree murder. First-degree murder usually applies when any of the following is true of the defendant:

  • He/she committed a willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.
  • He/she lied in wait to kill the victim.
  • He/she tortured the victim during the killing.
  • He/she used an explosive, poison, weapon of mass destruction or armor piercing ammunition.
  • He/she is guilty of violating the felony murder rule, which is when someone kills someone else while committing a specific felony.

PC 187 states that second-degree murder applies when the defendant acts with willful disregard for human life but does not act with premeditation. That could include situations like:

  • Two people get into a disagreement at a bar. In the heat of the moment, one of the men sucker punches the other person. The hit knocks him to the ground, where he hits his head and dies.
  • A person with a history of DUI convictions drives while inebriated and causes a crash that kills someone else.
  • Street racers are racing on an open road. As someone is lawfully crossing the street at a crosswalk, the racing cars quickly approach on him, striking him and killing him.

Penalties for murder in California

Most cases of first-degree murder are punishable by 25 years to life in California State Prison. 

There is a subcategory of first-degree murder known as “first-degree murder with special circumstances” or “capital murder.”

“Capital murder” is cases of first-degree murder where:

  • The defendant killed more than one victim.
  • He/she killed for financial gain.
  • He/she killed a witness to prevent them from giving testimony.
  • He/she killed a police officer, firefighter, prosecutor, judge, juror or elected official.
  • He/she was convicted of a hate crime — killing someone based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or nationality.
  • The killing was a drive-by shooting.
  • The killing was a gang killing.

Capital murder is punishable by either:

  • The death penalty. In California, this is done either via lethal gas or intravenous injection of lethal drugs.
  • Life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On March 12, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a temporary moratorium on executions. This means that, as long as this moratorium is active, people who have been convicted of capital murder in California will not face the death penalty and instead will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For second-degree murder, most cases are punishable by 15 years to life. However, the sentences for second-degree murder rise to 20-years-to life if the defendant shot from a vehicle, intending to injure someone else and up to life without parole if the defendant had previously been convicted of murder. 

On top of the prison sentences for murder, the court can also impose additional penalties depending on the facts of the case:

  • Fines of up to $10,000
  • A “strike,” pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law
  • Restitution to the victim
  • Loss of gun rights
  • Sentencing enhancements if a firearm was used in the murder, or if the killing was game related.

Defenses against murder charges in California

Murder charges are serious. If you or someone you love is facing charges for murder, what happens from here can change the course of your life. This can be a difficult and anxious time, but take heart in knowing that there is hope.

There are many possible defenses that can be used in murder cases, and your attorney will tailor a defense strategy around the facts and evidence in your case. This can include defense strategies like:

  • Self defense – California is both a “Stand Your Ground” and a “Castle Doctrine” state. That means that whether at home or outside, you are under no duty to retreat if you feel like your or someone else’s safety is in danger. You have a right to self defense.
  • Accident – If you were engaged in normal, lawful activity at the time of the other person’s death and didn’t intend to harm them, that is not murder. It’s simply an accident.
  • Illegal search and seizure – Your Fourth Amendment Right protects you from illegal search and seizure. If authorities didn’t follow the law when gathering evidence, it can be removed from the case.
  • False or coerced confession – The police are intimidating, and they have a long and well-documented track record of forcing people to confess for a crime they didn’t do.
  • Mistaken identity – Eyewitnesses are unreliable, and maybe the situation could’ve been a case of “wrong place at the wrong time.”
  • Insanity – These are situations where the defendant could not understand the nature of what they did and couldn’t distinguish right from wrong.

If there is clear and valid evidence that a person was responsible for someone else’s death, it might not be possible to see charges dropped entirely.

However, charges can be significantly reduced. Prosecutors often pursue the most serious charges early on in a case, and they do it to intimidate the defendant into a pleading guilty to avoid a trial. This is where it is so helpful to lean on your attorney’s expertise to understand the options ahead of you and what to expect.

When selecting your legal representation, look for an attorney with an extensive case history in homicides. An attorney who has “been there and done that” will have a great level of expertise that other defense attorneys don’t offer. They will have deeper connections with judges and prosecutors in the area. They will represent you more confidently, and most importantly, they’ll communicate more effectively to keep you informed and ease your anxiety throughout the process.

Understanding attempted murder charges in California

Attempted murder is a situation in which someone intends to kill someone else and takes a direct step to kill them, but the victim does not die.

This can include situations like:

  • Paying a hitman to kill someone, but the hitman fails
  • Poisoning someone, but the victim survives

Much like murder cases where the victim dies, attempted murder is divided into first degree and second-degree cases. First-degree attempted murder applies in situations where the defendant’s behavior was “premeditated and willful.” All other cases are second-degree attempted murder.

Attempted murder cases are serious. Sentences can range as high as life imprisonment in California State Prison, with additional penalties possible based on the facts of the case.

If you or someone you know has been accused of attempted murder, a call with a skilled criminal defense attorney can help ease some of the anxiousness of this time. Your attorney will thoughtfully review all of the facts of the case with you, inform you of what to expect and advise you of your options.

California’s ‘Attempted Murder’ laws

In order to prove that someone committed a crime, a prosecutor has to prove to a jury that certain facts of the case were true. In the case of attempted murder, California Penal Codes 664/187(a) PC state that the prosecutor must show:

  1. The defendant took at least one direct step towards killing another person.
  2. The defendant intended to kill that person.

What is a ‘Direct Step’?

The prosecutor has to prove that the defendant had a plan to kill someone else and acted on it (the defendant took a “direct step”). In other words, the prosecutor has to show that the murder would have succeeded if it weren’t for an outside factor. Direct steps can include situations like:

  • Stabbing someone in the chest
  • Slipping poison into someone else’s food
  • Firing a gun at someone

Note that the examples above show someone directly acting on a plan. Acts of murder preparation — such as buying a knife or Googling “how to make poison” — aren’t considered direct steps.

Intent in attempted murder cases

How does a prosecutor show that a defendant intended to murder someone? It often depends on where the victim was injured.

If the victim sustained injuries on their lower body or extremities, this usually indicates that the defendant intended to maim or injure the victim. In this case, the defendant is not guilty of attempted murder.

However, if the victim sustained injuries on their upper body (near vital organs) or the nature of the injury was clearly life-threatening, there is evidence to show that the defendant intended to kill their victim.

Penalties for attempted murder in California

As we mentioned above, attempted murder cases are divided into first degree and second-degree attempted murder.

Attempted murder is always a felony. First-degree attempted murder charges apply in cases where the defendant acted willfully, deliberately and with premeditation. First-degree attempted murder is punishable by:

  • Life imprisonment in California State Prison
  • Fines of up to $10,000
  • Restitution to the victim
  • Loss of gun rights

Second-degree attempted murder charges apply in all other cases. It includes punishments of:

  • 5, 7 or 9 years imprisonment in California State Prison
  • Fines of up to $10,000
  • Restitution to the victim
  • Loss of gun rights

In addition to the above, attempted murder is a “Three Strikes” offense in California. This means that your second “strike” carries a double sentence, and a third would carry a mandatory life sentence.

As well, there are numerous “sentencing enhancements” that can be applied in attempted murder cases, depending on the facts of the case. This can include cases involving gangs, firearms or if the victim was a police officer.

Defenses against attempted murder charges

To convict someone of attempted murder, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had a specific intent to kill. If the defendant simply meant to scare or injure the victim, there was no attempted murder committed.

This is where many attempted murder cases fall apart. The state has to show with irrefutable evidence that someone meant to kill another person and took a real, deliberate step to kill them. In many situations, a skilled defense attorney can dissect the evidence in the case and prove that it simply wasn’t true. This can result in your charges being reduced or dropped entirely.

Questions to ask a criminal defense attorney when facing murder charges

If you or someone you know is facing attempted murder charges, it’s important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. You should ask questions like:

  • How long have you been practicing law?
  • How many cases like mine have you handled?
  • What do you think are the best defenses in my case?
  • What are the potential penalties I’m facing?
  • How much experience do you have with murder cases?

When it comes to finding the right criminal defense attorney, it’s important to find someone with a style that meshes well with your own. Every lawyer has their own approach to cases, and you want to make sure you’re comfortable with the defense attorney you choose.

Some criminal defense attorneys are more aggressive in their approach, while others take a more low-key approach. There’s no right or wrong answer – it’s simply a matter of finding an attorney whose style suits you best.

Qualifications to look for when interviewing criminal defense attorneys in homicide cases

When you’re looking for a criminal defense attorney to defend you against homicide charges, there are a few key qualifications you should look for:

Experience in homicide cases

You want an attorney who has handled cases like yours before. You’ll know they have an understanding of the potential defenses available to you and the likely outcome of your case.


A good criminal defense lawyer will have the resources necessary to mount a strong defense on your behalf. This includes access to expert witnesses, private investigators and other professionals who can help prove your innocence.

A proven track record of success

When you’re facing serious charges like murder, you want an attorney who has a track record of getting results for their clients. This could mean getting the charges reduced or dismissed altogether.

Strong communication

As we mentioned above, it’s important that you find an attorney who you feel comfortable communicating with. This is someone who will be intimately involved in your case, and you need to be able to trust them to keep you updated on developments in your case and to answer any questions you may have.

Facing a murder charge? Speak with experienced criminal defense law firm

Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend has successfully represented clients in a wide variety of homicide cases, from attempted murder to vehicular manslaughter. He understands what you’re up against and will do everything in his power to get you the best possible outcome in your case.

Facing the criminal justice system can be an anxious time, and a quick conversation with a criminal defense attorney can provide some peace of mind for you or your loved one’s future. As a specialist in murder cases, earning recognition from esteemed groups like SuperLawyers and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100, Robert M. Helfend can help you navigate the options ahead of you.

Call us anytime, 24/7, for a free, no-risk discussion about your case – 800-834-6434

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